From the story of Janusz Korczak - the Polish-Jewish doctor who founded a revolutionary orphanage movement in Poland and stuck steadfastly by his young charges during the Nazi invasion of the country - Youth Music Theatre have fashioned a compelling and moving musical. Nick Stimson’s production is having a very short run at Kingston’s Rose Theatre, and is well worth catching if you possibly can.
Korczak’s story was the subject of a (rather controversial) 1990 motion picture directed by Andrzej Wajda, a film that was widely recognised as an influence on Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Here, however, director Stimson (who also wrote the book and lyrics), composer Chris Williams and a 44-strong cast create an involving, purely theatrical experience designed to engage audiences of all ages.
Even as it effectively opens out the action into the Rose auditorium (there are no “pit cushion” places as is usual at this venue), Liz Cooke’s design manages to suggest an enclosure of sorts, an apt approach for a piece in which issues of entrapment and escape are central. An expressive sound design by Jamie Flockton and Tim Skelly’s excellent lighting (along with some judiciously employed video projections) enhance the atmosphere, as the action moves from the orphanage founded by Korczak (Peter Straker) in the countryside to the Warsaw Ghetto.
By turns dramatic and delicate, Williams’s score nicely compliments the structure of the piece which juxtaposes effectively staged crowd sequences (in which Yael Lowenstein movement direction is particularly fine) with intimate two- or three-character scenes that offer vivid yet nuanced sketches of the orphans’ individual experiences and histories.
The work of the young ensemble is solid across the board, but especially impressive are the heart-rending, dulcet-toned Jo Moore, as Staszek, clutching tightly to the bird-cage that serves (a tad insistently) as one of the primary symbols of the piece, and Hannah Thompson who brings a riveting, beyond-her-years intensity to her role as the wilful Gienia. Harry Child and Ross Munro are a superb double-act as Bula and Izak, and the development of their characters’ relationship provides the narrative with perhaps its most dramatically compelling and unexpected arc.
Straker invests Korczak with gravitas and intelligence. The actor delivers an expertly modulated (and arrestingly sung) performance that communicates the character’s innate goodness even as it undercuts any air of sanctity, while Lewis Clarke brings a genuine sense of threat to his representative Nazi (billed simply as “Tormentor”).
The tensions and alliances among the group are sensitively teased out, especially in the affecting triangle that develops between Lindsay Atherton’s Jewish Golda, Joel Fisher’s Catholic Marek and Nicola McAllister half-Jewish Basia.
Skirting sentimentality yet full of feeling, Stimson’s fluid production serves, ultimately, as a testament to the power of story-telling and the resources of the human imagination in the most brutal and iniquitous of circumstances. Building to a climax that is at once hopeful and devastating, this is a stirring production of genuine poignancy and emotional power.
The production runs at the Rose until 3rd September. Further details here.